Sign In Forgot Password

Mishpatim 5783 - You Might Be Wrong

February 18, 2023 - 27 Sh'vat, 5783

Leading up to Yom Kippur a few years ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss published a positive confessional to be said alongside the traditional Vidui, that prayer that mentions all the terrible things we have done in the past year. Instead, Rabbi Weiss writes, “We have loved. We have blessed. We have grown. We have spoken positively,” and so on. When Rabbi Weiss’ prayer went public, my rabbi and boss Rabbi Scott Meltzer was not a fan. “There are lots of times throughout the year for us to feel good about ourselves,” Rabbi Meltzer taught me. “This is not one of them. Yom Kippur is a time for us to acknowledge deeply that we are fallible, that we might actually be wrong.”

I was drawn back to Rabbi Meltzer’s words with a verse and commentary from Parashat Mishpatim: Elohim lo t’kaleil… (Ex. 22:27). You shall not curse Elohim. At first glance, it looks like Elohim means God, as it often does, but here, medieval Spanish commentator Seforno says, “elohim” refers to judges. We have already received multiple commandments not to curse God, and we have seen “elohim” used elsewhere to mean judges. For Seforno, the verse reads, Elohim lo t’kaleil… You shall not curse judges. “Even if you think that the judge skewed your ruling,” Seforno teaches, “Do not curse him, since a person is not able to see his own liability.” Even if you do not accept it now, you may actually be at fault.

It is hard to do, but once in a while, each of us must accept the possibility that we might be wrong, perhaps even very wrong. While that reality does not make accepting criticism any easier, those of us who have a hard time hearing it can take a few steps towards softening the blow. When we are confronted, we can take a long breath before responding. While our first instinct may be to hit back, we can quietly check ourselves to find a more productive response. If we are able, we can ask why and how we are at fault, so that we can figure out how to either fix it, explain our deeds and decisions, or work towards compromise. Sometimes, criticism cuts deep enough that we cannot respond right now, and we can even communicate that to the person who offered the criticism. Later, we can go home and process how and whether such criticism is worth our time and energy.

Beyond direct criticism, we can benefit from entering any tough conversation with the assumption that our personal opinion may be flawed. The first and last steps that many of us learned from Pardes’ Mahloket Matters guidelines are helpful: “Listen to the other side and be open to admitting that you might be wrong… Consider that you might both be right, despite holding opposite positions.” When we enter a conversation assuming the truth and good will of the person across from us, we set a positive, inquisitive tone for ourselves and our discussion partner. Even if we know we are right in the end, we have at least done some research and considered the benefits of the opposite argument. If we discover we are wrong, we approach that reality without shame, knowing we thought critically about our stance before accepting another.

In our traditional weekday morning and afternoon liturgy, we make intentional space for reflection on our wrongdoing with Tahanun, a prayer for supplication. As we cry to God, Va’anahnu lo neida mah na’aseh… “As for us, we do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you,” we acknowledge that in some places, we are misguided and we do not even know it. We ask for God to treat us with mercy, even for all of our flaws, and to give us guidance for our deeds to come. As Tahanun is a fully silent prayer, the written liturgy gives us space to name to ourselves what we have done and said wrong and how we can improve and deal with the consequences for the rest of the day. Saying Tahanun twice a day can feel liberating, admitting the baggage we carry and inviting God to teach us how to lighten our load.

At the same time, there are a whole lot of days throughout the year when we do not recite Tahanun - on Shabbat, all other major and minor holidays, throughout the month of Nisan, at a brit milah or b’nei mitzvah, and in the presence of a bride, groom, or someone sitting shivah. Our Jewish calendar acknowledges that as important as it is to consider our misdeeds, it is vital that we take our holiest days of the year to celebrate where we have triumphed, where we have performed acts of loving-kindness. With patience, space to consider, and guidance from loved ones and trusted teachers, may we learn better each day when we have acted justly and when we have left room for improvement.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784